Synod on the Word of God

More than 40 years after the Second Vatican Council, the Bible still does not figure at the center of Catholic life the way the Eucharist does. When they meet in synod at the Vatican in October, bishops from around the world will address one of the great unfinished works of the council—namely, how Catholics can make the word of God their own. Even though the Catholic Lectionary for Sundays was re-designed in 1969 to use a three-year cycle of readings in order to promote greater familiarity with the whole of Scripture, Catholics do not yet own the Scriptures the way many Protestants, especially evangelicals, do. In assigning “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” as the topic for the coming 12th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Benedict signaled his recognition not only of how important proclamation, prayer and study of the Scripture are to the church, but also of his awareness that the church has far to go to complete the council’s reforms.

A summary of reports received from episcopal conferences and the Eastern churches, the instrumentum laboris, or working paper, released last month is a measure of the health of the whole church. It reveals a community that appreciates the rich resources of the council that are still to be mined, and it sheds light on a church laboring thoughtfully to overcome shortcomings in the implementation of Vatican II’s reforms.


To be sure, this is a Catholic document, where the Bible is regarded as “the church’s book.” Any single text, it insists, must be read in relation to the whole canon by the light of faith, together with the church’s tradition and with the guidance of the magisterium. But there is no impetus, as some wanted and others feared, for a heavy-handed imposition of hierarchical authority over new efforts to appropriate Scripture. The slight attention given, however, to the contribution of exegetes and theologians is to be lamented. The use and study of Scripture is one area in which the trend of recent decades to narrow the ordinary magisterium to the repetition of hierarchical pronouncements might more easily be reversed. Overall, the instrumentum laboris reminds readers that when it comes to the evangelization, catechesis and liturgical celebration of the word of God, the hopes of the council are still to be realized.

A significant shortcoming of the postconciliar reforms, according to the document, is the failure to communicate the sacramental nature of the celebration of the word in the liturgy. This is partly a result of poor preaching, it suggests, in particular the failure of homilists to open up “the treasures” of the Scriptures for the congregation. The absence of biblical preaching, the report indicates, may be due to a lack of adequate training. But it is worth pointing out that other pastoral priorities have frequently overtaken the appropriation of the Gospel as the center of Catholic pastoral practice and everyday culture. Signals that other things, like the catechism and pro-life activities, are of greater pastoral importance did not help. Setting up litmus tests for Catholic identity may also have shifted the content of some Catholic preaching in other directions.

Certainly revitalizing preaching should be at the top of the synod’s agenda. Too many of the faithful feel unenlightened and undernourished by what they hear each week from the pulpit. Nothing could strengthen the liturgy and give new vitality to the Catholic community as much as biblically rooted preaching. Another development that could greatly enrich the spiritual lives of the people as well as of the clergy, the instrumentum laboris points out, is the practice of lectio divina. This ancient form of prayer can contribute not only to personal appropriation of Scripture but also to spiritual conversation among parishioners and members of lay and religious communities, and so lead to greater unity in the faith community.

Finally, the working paper points to the Word of God active in today’s world and is open to the faith of others and to the dialogue of faith with culture. It notes how joint study and prayer over the Scriptures can both illuminate the differences that led to the separation of churches and contribute to appreciation of the common faith in Jesus Christ that unites all the baptized. Likewise, it affirms that the word of God is found in all creation, especially in the human person, and in the cultures that are humanity’s collective expression. The Bible itself, notes the document, represents a pluralism of cultures, “a series of encounters with man’s search to respond to his ultimate questions.” Lastly, the document affirms that as the church responds to the signs of the times, “the Word of God, planted by Christ as the seed of God’s Kingdom, makes its way through history.”

From the archives, John R. Donahue, S.J., on the history of Catholic Biblical Scholarship. Read "Biblical Scholarship 50 years After Divino Afflante Spiritu."

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Leonard Villa
10 years 9 months ago
Is it desireable to "own the Scriptures the way many"? To the charge that Catholics don't love, have high regard for, or use the Bible often made in apologetical encounters with Protestants, it can be responded, that Catholics don't use the Bible the way Protestants do that is Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone interpreted individually divorced from the Tradition. Yes, it's true that Catholics don't have chapter and verses memorized on many passages but many Catholics can refer to events in the Scriptures in Old and New Testaments because of exposure to the Lectionary at Mass. Is more necessary? Yes as your essay indicates: biblical preaching and lectio divina leading the faithful to praying in response to the Word of God.
10 years 8 months ago
The Eucharist doesn't demand much from us. It is pretty easy to bow, say "Amen" consume the host and go on about my way. Many Catholics don't even believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Bible however, especially the New Testament will cause some discomfort and create some questions for how we live our lives, how we treat our neighbor, how we see or ignore the "least" of our brothers. The words will stick in our mind and haunt us till be change our lives or just stop reading them
lLetha Chamberlain
10 years 8 months ago
I can't say, since being confirmed in the Catholic Church these ten years ago, I haven't been encouraged even up to my Archbishop himself to "continue to share your insights (from prayer and Holy Scripture) with others so that they may benefit and grow themselves..." I quote the Archbishop in a letter to me--and that these Biblical discussions (from which I glean some ideas for my writings) over coffee and lunch after Mass, and from Adult education don't spill into my life and work in many ways. Our diocese, under the shepherding of a wonderful Archbishop (Most Rev. Alexander Brunett) is rife with opportunities for building skills and knowledge of the Bible... and he personally sees to it that we are motivated to do so very graciously! Our pastor, Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan is one of the finest homilists you can imagine--never letting you down--usually giving all the homilies on Saturday vigil, and all four Masses on Sunday, too! Only occasionally does he take time off! We have the best at St. Jsmes Cathedral here in Seattle (although I would like to see some in-home Bible Study done on a more formal basis)...
10 years 8 months ago
The section about homilies reminded me of a relevant passage from Emerson's "Divinity SchoolAddress" of July 15, 1838. The issue for Emerson--and for me as I struggle to listen receptively to certain prepared homilies, such as the one delivered (no, read in a monotone) by Archbishop Raymond Burke on Holy Thursday this year, is personal contact among the preacher, book, and listeners: energy, liveliness, love for the people, as well as for the word, of God. Here are some excerpts from Emerson: "I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. . . A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. . . This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. . . The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,--life passed through the fire of thought. . . Alas for the unhappy man that is called to stand in the pulpit, and not give bread of life."
10 years 8 months ago
My seminary professor, David Buttrick (a Presbyterian), said to us at St. Meinrad Seminary, that if we intended to be good preachers we had to know the Scripture. I thought it odd that a Protestant was telling Catholics something that the Second Vatican Council encouraged. And yet as I hear about Catholic preaching around my diocese I hear that we have fallen back into moralizing and dogmatics instead of biblical preaching. I hear people quoting the Church Fathers, which is fine in a classroom, but I do not think appropriate for motivating and empowering Catholics to live the radical vision of God's Reign as Jesus preached it. It's almost like the homily has once again become a weapon for chatizing people in the pew for not following church teachings, chatizing them for practicing birth control and so forth. At a recent clergy gathering where the teaching was on in-vitero fertilization, the priest who was teaching was asked after he said the evils of this should be preached from the puplit, when in the lectionary should this preached? He responded that the evils of in-vitero or artificial fertilization coulbe be preached on the Feast of the Aunniciation! No wonder people have never heard the Scriptures preached on! Rev. Vernon J. Meyer
10 years 8 months ago
The church places its priests and deacons in the uncomfortable position of being THE voice of the gospel - without consistent and appropriate continuing education past their seminary days. Without giving these men the time and resources to continue to grow in their own understanding of the faith and to gain the tools to transmit its message in a post-modern world, why do we expect them to reflect its saving truths with the depth and relevance needed? If it is not possible to equip our homilists with what they need, it seems the next logical step would be to invite into the pulpit those who do have those skills and tools already at their disposal- regardless of their gender or ordination. The voice to boldly proclaim Christ in scripture is already found in its people - but it seems the church is more afraid to allow a potentially unconventional sermon to be heard and mulled over than a boring one to be complacently absorbed and fundamentally ignored.
10 years 8 months ago
According to your article, "Catholics do not yet own the Scriptures the way many Protestants, especially evangelicals, do." I would add that Protestants do not "own" the Eucharist, the way that Catholics do.
10 years 8 months ago
In his reflection, Sacramentum Caritatis, the Pope has virtally severed the Liturgy of the Word from the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the celebration of the Mass. Theologically that creates a split in the minds of the faithful between the Incarnation of God as expressed in the Word and the transcendance also expressed in the ritual. The ritual must be authenticated relationally as we struggle to `love one another as I have loved you`,to love our neighbour as ourselves, to love our enemy etc. In Benedict`s theology, the Eucharist is more an object than an act; Lityrgy is the `work of the people`, at the moment of celebration and in our lives. This split must be healed. The Tridentine Mass, communion in the hand are a foil for ambiguities in the mind of the Church and of His Holiness himself.
10 years 7 months ago
An interesting fact: The Polish National Catholic Church (of which I am a member) considers the Word of God to be a sacrament. The [Roman] Church found agreement with our understanding as noted in the joint publication: Journeying Together in Christ: The Report of the Polish National Catholic-Roman Catholic Dialogue (1984-1989). We believe and state that the proclamation and preaching of the Word confers sacramental grace. The Church has recently published a pamphlet on this issue - available from the PNCC Bookstore for anyone interested. What our understanding does in the practical sense is that it encourages due seriousness in the preparation and delivery of homilies. It also encourages the faithful to proactively participate in the Church's understanding of the Word. More so, to understand that the sacrament brings about change - a growing closer to our Lord and Savior - and a life lived in accord with His way. I wish you the best in your upcoming Synod and prayerfully hope that the Sacrament of the Word take its rightful place in the life of the [Roman] Church.
10 years 7 months ago
Thank you for your Editorial [July 7-14] "Synod on the Word of God." Your recap of the working paper reveals an amazing gap in the array of instruments listed to communicate "the treasures" of Scripture for the faithful. Where is place for the small Scripture Sharing Group which meets weekly to focus on the Readings proclaimed universally in the Sunday Liturgy. Up to ten participants bring personal Bibles. They compare translations; footnotes; different homilies from different Masses attended; commentaries from different sources. Dialogue is not controlled, but kept on track by a facilitator with Scripture background from local Seminary. This has been my style for parish groups for more than fifteen years. Such groups draw strength and vitality from their base secured in each Sunday's readings. A variety of commentary is easily available in the liturgy column of the diocesan newspaper, or in national religious publications [eg, AMERICA]. This style of sharing encourages both personal appropriation of Scripture, and lively dialogue among participants. With the Holy Spirit guiding our sharings, the face of the earth will be renewed. [Vatican II, G.S.#58]


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